Friday, June 12, 2009


Earlier this month, I attended the wedding of my nephew in Pennsylvania. It took place at an Episcopal church. The order of the service was held my attention since United Methodists and Episcopalians are "kissing cousins," having both been born about the same time from the Church of England (that is, soon after the end of the American revolution).

The priest followed the order of the Episcopalian Book of Common Prayer (BCP), which is their reference work for worship in the same way that we Methodists us the Book or Worship (BOW). I was intrigued at the inclusion in the wedding service of the old "if anyone objects to this wedding, speak now" etc.
Into this holy union N.N. and N.N. now come to be joined. If any of you can show just cause why they may not lawfully be married, speak now; or else for ever hold your peace.
Now, this is not religious language at all, of course, but legal language. In fact, a wedding ceremony is really a legal, contractual process that churches have overlaid with religious language. Many people do not know that getting married in a church by a priest or pastor is a relatively late development in Christendom. The great reformer Martin Luther, for example, was not married in a church and the habit did not start to become popular until late in the 16th century.

Until then, weddings were seen as civil procedures that could be (and almost always were) sanctified or sacramentalized by the Church. Couples got married by a civil magistrate of some kind and later a priest would bless the union. Sometimes this blessing took place on the wedding day and sometimes on the first anniversary.

Much of the litany we use in wedding services, both in the BCP and the BOW, reflects contractual language of the age of feudalism, when weddings formed obligations between the bride's and groom's families and were closely concerned with division and inheritance of property. For example:
In the Name of God, I, N., take you, N., to be my wife, to have and to hold from this day forward, for better for worse, for richer for poorer, in sickness and in health, to love and to cherish, until we are parted by death. This is my solemn vow.
Any lawyer will immediately recognize that this is legal language, and nothing but, with only the name of God invoked at the beginning to put a religious gloss on it. "To have and to hold" is a property-law term of ownership. Then the bride repeats the same words to the groom and voila, the contract is sealed. In feudal days, these vows formed legal contracts between the two families as well.

Anyway, at my nephew's wedding no one objected to the wedding and priest continued thus:
I require and charge you both, here in the presence of God, that if either of you know any reason why you may not be united in marriage lawfully, and in accordance with God's Word, you do now confess it.
Neither of these charges are found in the UMC's Book of Worship. I have never included them in any wedding I have officiated nor, for that matter, would I agree to do so. By the wedding day itself, it's a little late for someone to pop up and say the couple shouldn't get married! What am I supposed to do, tell everyone to have a seat while I hold a hearing and render a decision? Sorry, "not my yob." And as for either the bride or groom self-disqualifying, I figure that if they show up at the altar, that answers the question.

In fact, nothing demonstrates the feudal source of wedding services today more than these two charges. They were included, 1,000 years ago or so, not for the benefit of the marrying couple, but to demonstrate publicly at the ceremony that all was legal and proper.

As I said, though, neither of them are included in the UMC's service. Nor, for that matter, is there any nonsense about asking "who gives this woman to be married to this man." The bride is not property and therefore cannot be given to anyone. However, I am quite comfortable with including "who presents this woman to be married to this man," which is altogether different. I have never officiated a wedding when the bride didn't want dad to hand her over to the groom no matter how "liberated" or financially independent she was. If dad was not there (deceased or deeply estranged) she still wanted a male relative to do so. Which is fine!

Finally, I do not "pronounce" the couple husband and wife, I "announce" that they are now husband and wife.

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